Should elections for Lok Sabha and state assemblies be held simultaneously? This, along with misuse of money power in elections, are two major issues related to electoral reforms that require ‘constructive debate’ — said President Prab Mukherjee in his Republic Day address to the country, as well as to parliamentarians at the start of the budget session. He pointed out that frequent elections ‘put on hold development programmes, disrupt normal public life, impact essential services and burden human resource with prolonged periods of election duty’. It is not as if this is a new debating issue; pundits have been brainstorming over it for years. In fact, simultaneous elections were the norm from 1951 to 1967. Then tiol and state elections began falling out of step due to premature dissolution of some state assemblies, while in 1970, the Lok Sabha itself was dissolved before completing its term. The Election Commission in 1983, the Justice BP Jeevan Reddy-led Law Commission in 1999 and the Parliamentary Standing Committee in 2015 — all advocated a return to the earlier situation of simultaneous polls. For the ruling BJP at the Centre, simultaneous polls has been a favorite slogan since 2011 when LK Advani promoted it. Prime Minister rendra Modi re-ignited the debate in March last year when he did some loud thinking in a BJP office-bearers meet, that state and local level polls held virtually every year not only make the entire election process prohibitively costly, these also disrupt public welfare and governce due to imposition of model code of conduct. Party workers have to canvass for votes instead of making people at grassroots aware of developmental schemes, while the bureaucracy gets tied down with poll-related work — PM Modi argued. The Central government then sought online feedback from common people about the PM’s proposal till October last.
While the Election Commission said it is open to the PM’s proposal, it also pointed out that all political parties must be in agreement and the necessary amendment to the constitution has to be made. Even if such a consensus was to come about, the EC would need more than Rs 9,000 crore to procure sufficient number of EVMs and VVPAT machines. The law and order aspect would need careful looking into, because large numbers of security personnel would have to be deputed to conduct simultaneous polls. However, the EC estimate that holding elections to Lok Sabha and state assemblies will cost around Rs 4,500 crore — gives only part of the picture about its own savings. Observers point to overall spends by parties and candidates which are manifold higher, like the Centre for Media Studies estimate of Rs 30,000 crore (undeclared) spent in 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Still, doing away with several elections every year will substantially reduce costs. But the question is — will political parties agree to it in the first place? The Congress has already made its opposition clear, while several other parties have taken ambivalent stands. The arguments against simultaneous polls primarily invoke the country’s federal polity and multi-party democracy, that state elections deal with local issues unlike parliamentary elections. References are also made to empirical studies indicating a trend to vote for the same party whenever simultaneous polls are held. So it all boils down to a deep-seated fear that if a party mages to ride a wave (like the BJP rode the Modi wave or ‘Tsumo’ in 2014), it may end up bagging most states along with the Centre. So the option has to be there for opposition parties to hold out in some states, get some breathing space to reorganize, and mount a credible challenge before long. The Congress is fancying such a chance in UP this time in tandem with Samajwadi Party, just like it did in Bihar in 2015 with RJD and JD(U). The Aam Aadmi Party too is dreaming of taking a foothold in Punjab and Goa to build on its Delhi base. So, arguments against having the country in permanent election mode and bearing continuous poll expenses are not likely to wash against arguments for ‘democratic principles’. Rather, the Supreme Court’s efforts to keep governce matters separate from model code of conduct (like the general budget this time vis-à-vis polls in 5 states) and ensuring the stability of governments in opposition-ruled states — are more likely to show the way ahead.